Years ago, I lived in an old brown house that had been converted into apartments. Next door lived a Dutchman, older than I was and divorced, with a son who visited him on weekends. One winter night, for his fiftieth birthday, he invited me in for a bowl of soup with Madeira in it. I remember sitting on his floor, cross-legged by the fire, my bowl balanced on my knee, watching splashes of shadow play on the ceiling while we talked.
My apartment was a transient's place--bed, desk, chair, and books--while his exuded a tidy and determined Old World cheerfulness. Two pairs of wooden shoes, blue and yellow, waited in a neat queue by the door. Painted wooden tulips bloomed on the windowsill. A series of photographs and collages ornamented the landlord-beige walls: the work of his mother, he told me, a fashion journalist and artist, who was then, in her late seventies, living and working in Amsterdam.
The images were striking, and I wish I could remember them in detail, but after all this time I recall only one: a child's hands, my neighbor's son's. The hands are raised as if to catch a ball, but, instead, flowers tumble from them, upward to the sky. It was a beautiful image but a strange one, full of the kind of hope that springs from rewriting a natural law.
It's been decades since we were neighbors, this man and I, but we have maintained a sporadic correspondence. Years pass between letters, but eventually one of us remembers that it's been a while since we exchanged notes. His Christmas cards are always homemade, a photograph or a drawing, and generally they contain some piece of news so encrypted that I have to ask him to translate. One year, for example, his card featured a black-and-white photograph of himself taking off a mask, a plaster cast of his own face. This meant, obviously, as he explained in exasperation, that he had retired.
Occasionally there would be news of a more straightforward sort. He bought a house. His son grew up. His grandson was born. His mother was still living. Into her eighties, then into her nineties, she went on living in Amsterdam: writing, taking photographs, receiving visitors, spurning with asperity any suggestion she might be growing frail.
And then, after a long silence, a few days ago I received in the mail a slender book, self-published, spiral-bound: a personal memoir of sorts, its cover illustrated with a photograph of an ornate Art Nouveau door. The rifle, Life With and Without My Mother, answered the...